As news spread about the loss of two sisters killed in a predawn fire in a vacation rental home in Noyack Wednesday, friends and neighbors gathered outside the family's house in Potomac, Maryland, leaving flowers and cards in a gesture of remembrance and support.
"It's an unbelievable tragedy," longtime family friend Maura Kilner told Newsday on Thursday. "It's a tragedy for anybody, but especially for this family. They're probably the kindest people ever."
Police, fire marshals and code enforcement investigators continued to probe the cause of the blaze Thursday, which took place in a rental home without a valid permit that would have called for safety inspections — a town code violation. It was still too early to say whether that violation had any connection to the fire, officials said.
Southampton Town Police and fire officials said Jillian Wiener, 21, and Lindsay Wiener, 19, were pulled "unconscious and unresponsive" from the second floor of the burning home on Spring Lane and later pronounced dead at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital.
Three others in the house — Lewis Wiener, 60, his wife Alisa, 52, and son Zachary, 23 — all were able to escape; the parents, from a first-floor bedroom, the son jumping out a second-floor window. Police said Wiener attempted to re-enter the burning home to save his daughters but was turned back by intense heat and flames.
Officials at Stony Brook University Hospital, where the surviving family members were transferred after initial transport to Stony Brook Southampton, did not release updates on their conditions and it was not clear if they remained hospitalized.
Town director of code compliance and emergency management administrator Ryan Murphy said initial indications are the fire cause was "noncriminal.But he said the homeowners had rented the property without having filed a valid rental permit application.
"There are clearly code violations here," Murphy said. "How many and to what degree is to be determined. But, at a minimum, we know there are violations associated from it being rented without a permit. How many other violations there are is still being examined."
He said that while the home had smoke detectors, it remains unclear if they were working as designed at the time of the fire. "That's yet to be determined," he said. Murphy also said officials have been in contact with the listed owners of record, Peter and Pamela Miller, and said: "I think that this tragic event really underscores the importance of following the process of legally renting and making sure that the proper safety inspections take place before renting."
Murphy said on average, there are between 3,500 and 4,000 permitted rentals in the Town of Southampton and that, because of the wide range in neighborhoods, these run the gamut. "You have cottages and apartments that rent for hundreds of dollars and you have nine-bedroom, 12-bathroom oceanfront villas that rent for hundreds of thousands of dollars," he said.
"Most of the time," Murphy said, "people don't realize they're violating the law. Sometimes they just don't know. Hopefully, out of this, more owners make it a point to go through the process legally."
Contacted Thursday, an emotional Pamela Miller said: "We have no comment," adding before she hung up, "We're just empty right now."
Back in Maryland, Maura Kilner said friends and neighbors are in mourning. She said her family has known the Wieners since they moved into the neighborhood about 20 years ago and said her husband Mark had coached baseball with Lewis Wiener — a team that featured Zachary Wiener and her son Brian.
She said she often went for walks with Alisa Wiener and one of her three children was good friends with Jillian Wiener. The families, she said, live seven houses apart.
"I still can't process it," she said. "We have a close-knit neighborhood. Probably three-hundred homes, all cul-de-sac … Everybody knows the Wieners. We met at the house, not that they were there, but we met there just to gather. The thought was to be together and to talk."
Kilner said she had texted the Wieners, as a show of support "to let them know we're here, we love them and they're not alone," she said.
Jillian and Lindsay Wiener both graduated from the Holton-Arms School, an all-girls preparatory school in Bethesda, Maryland. Officials there Wednesday said Jillian Wiener was an incoming senior at the University of Michigan, while Lindsay Wiener was returning to her sophomore year at Tulane.
"Jillian and Lindsay were just such bright lights," Maura Kilner said. "Lindsay always had a smile on her face. Jillian was driven by the environment, caring for people, those less fortunate. Their family is a beautiful family. They just love fiercely, but they are humble . . It's just such a tragedy."